Contemporary series regains direction

Matthias Pintscher
The Austrailian

By  Eamonn Kelly

IN 2004, Markus Stenz completed his seven-year term as chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Among the youthful German's achievements was the development of Metropolis, an annual contemporary music series that proved surprisingly popular.

Stenz's influence on Metropolis's programming was unashamedly pronounced and much of the success of the series came down to personal presentation of the material, blending suave charisma with an obvious enthusiasm for the repertoire.

Since Stenz's departure, Metropolis has lurched along in a relatively rudderless fashion. Incumbent chief conductor Oleg Caetani has focused on his own strengths and interests, leaving management to determine the fate of the series. In 2007, inspired curatorial guidance briefly returned, with Australian composer Brett Dean devising a program that, aesthetically, recalled Stenz's interests and featured, as frontman and conductor, laid-back and likable Scottish composer James MacMillan.

Developing the composer-curator model, the MSO has adopted a radical new approach. A 38-year-old German composer and conductor, Matthias Pintscher, long the darling of ageing European modernists, has been allowed to devise and present a program that pivots on his own works, his compositional inspirations and composers he calls colleagues and friends. Pintscher followed three principles: to introduce music little known in Australia; to present diverse soundscapes; and to share his aesthetic.

There was a touch of naive Eurocentricity about the first principle, underestimating the breadth of Australian listening experience and overlooking the heavy dose of European modernism Stenz programmed during his tenure. The soundscapes chosen by Pintscher were certainly diverse, many works involving extreme internal contrasts of tonal coloration, orchestration and mood.

There was also a reasonable mix of compositional styles: five written before 1985 (Webern, Zimmerman, Boulez), three substantial works by Pintscher, two by older European colleagues (Sciarrino, Jarrell) and two fresh Australian works (by Elias Constantopedos and Lorenzo Alvaro).

Pintscher's batonless conducting style is precise, minimalist and curiously delicate, typically involving symmetrical arm gestures, a pincer grip and raised little fingers. The orchestra responded marvellously well to conductor and repertoire, and there were few apparent imperfections despite the extreme technical demands and complex extended techniques involved.

Pintscher seems drawn towards music with explicit intellectual underpinnings, here featuring works inspired by poetry, archeology, science, etymology and ethics. His evocatively titled works Osiris and Reflections on Narcissus use mythology for inspiration, conceptual frames on which to hang abstract compositional material that is generally too oblique to be interpreted programmatically. Stylistically, his music straddles several branches of European modernism, tempering angst and gloomily intense intellectualism with masterful, expressive and occasionally uplifting orchestration inspired by 20th-century French traditions.

The strength of this series was a renewed emphasis on personality. It featured an individual musical perspective delivered with relative autonomy by a young and charismatic conductor. If sustained in future years, a popular phoenix may emerge from the bleak, post-Stenz ashes of Metropolis.